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scientists respond to report on collections of human remains

The Human Remains Working Group, established by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has decided that a panel should be established to oversee the repatriation of human remains from museums.

Dr Robert Foley, Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, said:

“The scientific study of human remains has played a major role in revealing our history, especially for peoples and times without writing. If the Palmer Report recommendations, as reported, are implemented, then the future of these collections will be threatened. We should be learning from skeletons, not reburying them – they are the remains of people still contributing to humanity and its knowledge of itself.”

Professor Peter Vanezis, Chief Forensic Medical Officer and Head of Forensic Medical Sciences at the Forensic Science Service, said:

“I think this issue should have been looked at in much more depth. I don’t think it’s been thought through properly at all, it’s a knee-jerk reaction.

“These collections are very important to forensic pathology. For example, this provides an invaluable historical record of the diseases that humans have been exposed to over thousands of years. Of course you’ve got to respect peoples feelings, but if the specimens are more than a hundred years old, I’m sure there must be some way to reach an agreement that satisfies both the people who want these remains to be repatriated, as well as preserving them for science.”

Sir Neil Chalmers, Director of the Natural History Museum, said:

“I support the Report’s leading recommendation for a change in legislation to give Museum Trustees the ability to make discretionary decisions about the future of human remains in its collections. I also support the recommendation for an independent licensing authority, with an associated code of practice, to ensure high standards of care for collections and fair and transparent procedures for considering requests for repatriation.

“These are very complex and difficult questions. A change to the law, together with a clear ethical framework for decision-making, would enable us to conduct more open discussions with claimants, which we welcome. We recognise the concerns of indigenous communities around the world, and need to weigh this up against the great value to humanity of holding our collections and the important research they support.

“However, I am concerned that some of the detailed recommendations of the Report, including an elaborate regulatory system, are unnecessarily bureaucratic and in practice unworkable. I am also concerned that the Report does not fully recognise the undoubted public benefits deriving from medical, scientific and other research. The Museum’s mission is to promote the discovery and understanding of the natural world and we have a strong commitment to continuing this vital scientific research for the benefit of all.”

Dr Bill Sellers, Lecturer in Human Anatomy at Loughborough University, said:

“At least we’ve got clear guidance on this issue now. And the proposed committee will hopefully ensure that the stuff from our museums gets sent back to the right people, rather than simply being shifted to museums in different countries.

“But it’s vitally important that we are able to take photograph records of all these specimens before they are lost to science forever. This ruling will break up collections that are very valuable to science – we can learn a great deal about human evolution from them. Now that we have new techniques, such as extracting DNA from the specimens, the opportunities for study are even greater – but now those opportunities will be lost.”

Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr, Director of the Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge, said:

“Human remains represent an internationally recognised source of knowledge about our species’ history, biology and health. I believe that no one generation of people has the right to destroy that heritage, the same way that a particular government of Afghanistan did not have the right to erase that country’s Buddhist history, however strongly held the views.

“Claims for repatriation are based on ideas of biological and cultural descent, but human populations are not bounded entities through time, and biological and cultural ancestral affiliation are fluid concepts – who are the descendants of our Saxon skeletons, or Iron Age, or Norman ones? Today, the skeletal and cultural remains of these populations are considered part of the complex biological and cultural history of our country, to which all these groups, and many others, have and continue to contribute. Future generations of Australians will also be able to trace their ancestry to a combination of peoples, or more likely, simply know that various people make-up their ancestry without actually being able to trace it. Why should part of our global heritage today and the local heritage of future generations of Australians be destroyed today?”

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